Imagine explaining to a foreigner why Americans say “like.”
Seems easy until you try it.
To “be like” means to be similar to something, while “to like” means to enjoy something. But, like, how do you explain why we say “like” every other word?
Sometimes words just don’t translate “literally.”
There are words like this in most languages, and Italian is no exception.
Sure, you can basically explain what a word means, but sometimes there’s no English equivalent of an Italian word, while other times, it’s difficult to get all the nuances of the meaning into a neat translation.
Understanding words that have no literal translation is a great way to gain a deeper knowledge of both the language and the culture that birthed it.
Use these unique words correctly and you’ll be one step closer to fluency!
How to Study the Real Meanings of Italian Words
It’s one thing to learn the definition of a word. But it’s entirely different to learn its meaning.
When I began to study Italian, I entered an immersive environment and noticed that certain items had names that were different from those I’d learned from my coursework. There were also expressions that everyone seemed to understand that I definitely didn’t.
So I asked, and in response I got this advice:
“Non cercare la logica. Cerca significato.” (“Don’t look for logic. Look for meaning.”)
I was in the kitchen with several other women at the time. The reply came just before I was urged to affetti il formaggio (slice the cheese).
I now impart this advice onto you!
How do you learn vocabulary, especially when it has no direct English translation? You look for meaning, and accept that it might be different from the dictionary definition.
The best way to do this is to immerse yourself in the language. Immersive learning is a super way to grasp the intricacies of a language. (And discover the best way to serve Italian cheeses!)
If you can’t travel to Italy, you can create an immersive Italian experience in your own home.
One way to do so is by learning with the authentic content on FluentU!
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons, as you can see here:
FluentU helps you get comfortable with everyday Italian by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with interactive subtitles.
Tap on any word to instantly see an image, in-context definition, example sentences and other videos in which the word is used.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and review words and phrases with convenient audio clips under Vocab.
Once you’ve watched a video, you can use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in that video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
FluentU will even keep track of all the Italian words you’ve learned to recommend videos and ask you questions based on what you already know.
Plus, it’ll tell you exactly when it’s time for review. Now that’s a 100% personalized experience!
The best part? You can try FluentU for free with a 15-day trial.
Start using Fluent on the website, or better yet, download the app from the iTunes or Google Play store for iOS and Android devices.
With a little effort—and a list like the one we’ve compiled here—we can all grasp the untranslatable words that give Italian its added flavor.
So let’s have some fun, expand your vocabulary and give you some authentic flair to pull into your Italian conversations!
11 Untranslatable Italian Words That Don’t Exist in English
Apericena (Appetizer Dinner)
Apericena is the combination of two words you probably already know: aperitivo (appetizer) and cena (dinner). Marry the two and the result is apericena (appetizer dinner)!
Italian culture is so influenced by the magnificent food served there, it’s not surprising that the idea of having a buffet-like, finger-food meal with drinks has become a thing. It’s especially welcome on hot summer nights when no one’s in the mood to cook a big, heavy meal!
If you’re familiar with Spanish culture you’ll recognize this is similar to Spanish tapas (finger food).
However, tapas (finger food) often preclude a meal whereas apericena (appetizer dinner) basically is the meal.
Culaccino (Watermark on a Table)
There’s no logic to this word but it’s widely used and understood.
A culaccino is the word used to reference a watermark on a table. Not just any watermark, though: It’s the round mark left behind when an ice-filled, sweating, wet glass is placed on a wooden surface—usually a table.
If there’s a random watermark, like a splatter on furniture, it’s unfortunate. But it’s not a culaccino.
Round, in the shape of the bottom of a glass? Culaccino.
Menefreghista (A Person Who Doesn’t Care)
There’s no literal translation for this expression. It’s sort of a mashup of the general phrase Non me ne frega (I don’t care).
It’s used to refer to someone who, obviously, doesn’t care about whatever’s being discussed.
No one calls themselves this, but it’s tossed around to label others.
Gattara (Old Cat Lady)
In English, we call the elderly woman who either has a ton of felines or feeds a bunch of strays an “old cat lady.”
Italians go one step further and give this concept an actual word: gattara.
It comes from the word gatto (cat). There’s nothing in the word that says “old”; it’s implied. Why? Honestly, I don’t know. That’s part of the untranslatable aspect!
But if you’re speaking Italian and make reference to a gattara, everyone will understand just exactly what you mean!
Pantofolaio (Couch Potato)
Every culture recognizes the couch potato!
The pantofolaio is the person who’s content to hang around the house in a robe and slippers, never venturing further than the kitchen to grab a snack before settling again on the sofa to binge watch videos or TV shows.
The word comes from pantofole (slippers) and is a fitting adaptation considering couch potatoes rarely leave comfortable trappings, including slippers, behind!
If you tried to translate “couch potato” into Italian, you’d get, literally, patata sul divano (potato on the couch). But people aren’t actually potatoes (usually). So, in English you say “couch potato.” In Italian you say pantofolaio. Couch slipper?
Struggimento (Literally: Yearning)
This one has a literal translation but it doesn’t come close to the true implication of the word when it’s used.
Yearning is defined as an intense longing for something.
Struggimento is all that—but amplified. Like, really amplified.
It’s an intense longing but it shows that the one longing is actually suffering from the intensity of their longing. It implies that the person is absolutely miserable as a result of their yearning.
In other words, it’s a very dramatic word that shows yearning to the point of physical pain.
Baffona (Woman with Mustache)
Baffi (mustache) is the furry creature that men grow on their upper lips.
Baffona, however, is a casual term for a woman with a mustache.
This one I learned at a dinner table. Conversation turned to matchmaking, which was no surprise since the family that surrounded me was completely in favor of amore (love) and thought everyone should be attached to a special someone.
The unmarried man seated near the other end of the table received some well-intentioned news: The neighbor’s daughter was unattached. No one knew what happened between her and her boyfriend but the fact was, she was single.
The man’s reply? “È una baffona!” (“She’s a woman with a mustache!”)
People nodded and chuckled but no one asked what he meant because they all knew.
No love match was made, but I learned a new word!
Magari (Literally: Maybe)
Magari means much more than maybe.
It’s a reply to a question that deserves more than an affirmative answer. It implies a definite desire for something.
But it’s also non-commital.
Confusing, isn’t it?
Consider these examples and it’ll be clear what magari means.
If your friend asks whether you’d like to go to a club with the hottest guy in your apartment complex but you don’t want to seem too eager? Magari.
Your boss points to a red sports car and asks if you wouldn’t like to see it parked in your driveway? Magari.
It says yes and implies that someday the date, car or whatever might be yours. It shows that you’d like for something to happen but you’re not exactly sure it will so you wish or yearn for it.
Forse (maybe) and magari (maybe) can be used interchangeably in conversation without any fuss although there’s a shade of difference between the two.
Forse (maybe) has an implication of uncertainty; maybe something will happen or maybe it won’t.
Magari (maybe) is more about hopes and wishes. If it’s a maybe-someday dream, use magari (maybe). Who knows? Your dream may come true!
Boh! (Who Knows?)
Need something to accompany a shoulder shrug? Or to wave off a question that you don’t want to answer? Or even to comment on whether tomorrow the sun will shine or rain will fall?
It’s the go-to, use-anytime word that comes so easily and covers so much.
If you’re not sure, can’t be bothered, don’t want to be pinned down or just plain don’t feel like thinking, wave your hand and reply, boh!
Believe me, it works!
Mozzafiato translates literally but it has an intensity behind it that certainly can’t be translated. There’s an emotional element to the word.
Mozzafiato (breathtaking) comes from a combination of the words mozzare (to cut off) and fiato (breath).
Even though there isn’t a direct translation for mozzafiato, when you look at its root words it does make sense!
If something is so divinely gorgeous that witnessing it steals your breath, it’s mozzafiato.
Mamma Mia! (My Goodness!)
We couldn’t let this post end without mentioning this classic Italian exclamation!
It goes everywhere, addresses any situation and is perfect for when you don’t know what else to say. It fills nearly every conversational bare spot.
Were you just served the most amazing struffoli? Mamma mia!
Did the music at the outdoor concert in the piazza (square) sound amazing? Mamma mia!
Were you turned wobbly-kneed by a kiss? Mamma mia!
You get the idea. If something is wonderful? Mamma mia!
Alternatively, if you’re served a terrible meal or go on an awful date? Mamma mia!
Put these untranslatable Italian words to work and you’ll sound molto autentico (very authentic)!
Buona fortuna! (Good luck!)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Italian with real-world videos.